Pass the Populism

A potluck dinner at the edge of the civilized world

| September-October 2011

  • pass-the-populism

    Catell Ronca /

  • pass-the-populism

The tables are overcrowded with chicken enchiladas, Swedish meatballs, organic salad greens, pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, dishes as varied and predictable as the 60 of us who sit on wooden benches waiting to eat. We’ve gathered at the Stehekin Community Hall this November evening to bid farewell to a family that’s moving. The day has been gray, as the past several have been, ever since an inversion settled into the valley. We needed, all of us, to get out of the house, to share some food and company. The kids feel it, and they romp excitedly in the tree-hemmed parking lot in the slopover glow from the hall windows.

Black-and-white photos dating back to the turn of the last century adorn the walls. They’re posed community shots, grainy and indistinct. Some of the faces are younger versions of folks here tonight; others are ancestors of people whose characteristics—large ears, toothy grins, a certain prideful tip of the head—identify them easily. Others are long gone and forgotten, short-timers. Native Americans named this place Stehekin, meaning “the way through,” because of the narrow mountain pass that facilitated east-west trade routes. The natives only used the valley seasonally, and the legacy of transience remains. Farewell potlucks, up here, are as common as weeklong inversions, and this one has given us a fine excuse to gather on the grim cusp of winter.

Ours is doubtless the largest gathering—of humans at least—for a minimum 30-mile radius in every direction. No roads go in or out of Stehekin. You can take a boat or you can take a float plane, or in summer you can hike. But you can’t drive. This time of year, the boat runs every other day, and a plane could not navigate this weather, so tonight we are effectively cut off. We’re tucked into the famously wet Cascades, in a small valley separated from the outside world by steep jagged mountains and long skinny Lake Chelan. By now, people who live in this valley in north central Washington do so precisely because there are no roads in or out, and if one were to be proposed, a furious uproar would ensue.

So here we are, about a hundred people who choose to live in comparative isolation. Like many other rural places, this valley has no stoplights, no fast food restaurants, no grocery stores. Like very few rural places, it has neither a church nor a tavern, though people do, of course, both worship and imbibe excessively. Stehekin has no town council, which is probably one reason we manage to get along. A locally elected school board governs the one-room school. We do without some conveniences, sure, but not many. We don’t have telephones—landlines don’t extend this far and cell towers are forbidden in designated wilderness—but we have internet service via satellite dishes that began to sprout on cabins like mushrooms a few years back. We can’t go to the movies, but we can rent DVDs from Netflix. We can’t go to the store, but we can send an email order to the Red Apple Market downlake and have groceries arrive at the boat dock. (We used to send a handwritten list and a blank check a week in advance. Now we live large.) The only thing we truly can’t do is escape one another.

My partner, Laurie, and I fall in toward the end of the queue, behind a gang of 3-year-olds snatching cookies while their parents are distracted with the casseroles. I look around at the crowd: a barge operator, a fabric artist, a music teacher, a retired engineer, a disabled vet, a self-described inventor. Gone this time of year are the seasonal Park Service employees. One guy I worked with on a tail crew, a seasonal worker from Chicago, mastered the art of simmering a pot of dried beans—cheaper than potato chips—to bring to the frequent summer potlucks.

“I’ve never really had to think about it before,” he told me.

Gale Green_2
9/22/2011 2:23:39 AM

The author of "Potluck" describes kids playing on the tree lined parking area, and yet says there's no cars, no roads. . . ??

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